One of Markus James’s earliest childhood memories from growing up in Washington, D.C. was of the blind street musician he would often stop to hear sing on the sidewalks each day on his way to nursery school. This early exposure undoubtedly had a profound effect on the young lad, inspiring not only a lifelong love of the blues, but also an interest in exploring the roots of this and other world music.
Eventually, James migrated to San Francisco, where he pursued the study of African, Haitian, East Indian and Indonesian traditional instruments while also playing rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n’ blues. In 1994, however, he narrowed his focus considerably following his first visit to Mali.
After jamming with some local legends in the village of Niafounke, he came to appreciate the considerable influence of that West African nation on the evolution of American music. Furthermore, he came to understand, firsthand, why Mali is widely regarded as a birthplace of the blues.
Since then, James has returned numerous times to the country to collaborate with Malian master musicians on original songs, performing and recording their cross-cultural creations. Plus, he has released a couple of well-received CDs recorded there, Nightbird and Where You Wanna Be.
Now, a decade into his ongoing commitment to the region, James has produced Timbuktoubab, an entertaining and informative concert film, served up with just the right mix of sand dunes, desertscapes and childlike silliness on the side. The movie arrived at its alliterative title by combining Timbuktu with “Toubab,” the common expression for a white person.
The picture was shot amidst the shifting sands of the southern Sahara in Timbuktu, a city which most probably still think of as a merely mythological place. Today, in many countries, the phrase “from here to Timbuktu” is used to suggest an alien environment almost as remote, unreachable and unknowable as, say, the moon.
But in truth, it was once well-known as a world capital of equal stature and significance to Rome, Athens and Mecca. Founded around 1100 near the banks of the Niger River, in its heyday, the city had flourished as part of, first, the Mali and, then, the Songhay empir